“can you put a price on your dreams?”
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is grandiose from the very title down to the last frame of the closing credits. Everything about this film is crashingly showy. On strictly visual terms, director Terry Gilliam has created a spectacular display with this film. The same cannot always be said of the plot, which is always going somewhere, but where is an open question. It is a strange, ramshackle beast, hard to understand and harder to explain.
Heath Ledger’s death midway through filming nearly halted production entirely, until Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Ferrell stepped in to finish unshot scenes. This comes out in the ramshackle storyline, which wanders from subplot to subplot with no clear destination. Gilliam’s central message is muddled as well: it might be a morality play about good versus evil, but I was never quite sure. Nonetheless, there are moments of genuine joy to be had, when the plot, production, and performances line up just so, and in these instants, Doctor Parnassus is sublime.
Strong performances from Christopher Plummer and Tom Waits (!) carry the film. Plummer is best in the moments when he is on the verge of giving up: his utter weariness is painful to see. Waits steals every scene he’s in, playing the Devil as a leering shyster with all the growling menace he can muster. Ledger’s performance as Tony is rambling and improvisational, and sometimes scenes run overlong for it. His “transformed” versions seem disconnected from Tony’s character; unsurprising given that they were brought in as a stop-gap measure to get the film finished. Andrew Garfield and Lily Cole are both solid in their supporting roles, although their respective plots don’t seem to go anywhere—probably due to missing scenes with Ledger.
Gilliam and his frequent collaborator, Charles McKeown, wrote Doctor Parnassus, and unfortunately their dialogue hasn’t gotten significantly better since Brazil. Scenes feel very stilted at turns, and Verne Troyer’s dialogue especially comes across as incidental at best. While the first rule of cinema is show, don’t tell, Gilliam and McKeown frequently fail to show enough; this leads to confusing scenes that only become meaningful much later when more context is established. Waits’ dialogue is the best in the film, although that owes much to his performance. Much of Ledger’s lines were improvised, and he tends to ramble. On the whole, the writing is the weakest aspect of the film.
Because of the weak script and the necessity of editing around Ledger’s scenes, the whole film takes on a rickety aspect, rattling from one subplot to the next with only the barest of over-arching threads to hold it together. The general story of the eons-long battle between Doctor Parnassus and the Devil feels folded-in, subsumed in the visual smorgasbord that Gilliam creates. Tony’s story ends abruptly, putting focus back onto Parnassus. A lack of focus permeates the film. Nonetheless, the ending manages to complete this shambling storyline in a bittersweet but satisfying way. Given all the obstacles this film’s production faced, the fact that Gilliam manages to end it at all is an achievement.
The AV Club’s Tasha Robinson notes the parallels between Doctor Parnassus’ plot and Gilliam’s own career: “there’s a lot of Gilliam in Plummer’s tragically ineffectual character.” Gilliam’s dogged determination to tell his stories, grandiose and fraught with trouble as they are, is mirrored in Plummer’s displaced sideshow, lost in an era that no longer cares about the imagination. The transparent way in which Parnassus’ legerdemain works, with palmed coins and confetti, drives home how out-of-place his stories are in cynical downtown London. Gilliam’s tale is simultaneously bitter and hopeful, eager to find a Tony willing to buy into his ideas completely.
avatar - counterpoints
I saw Avatar last night.
- I was rather disappointed by the movie in a story telling sense. But I knew I was going to be disappointed. It’s a shame thats not the reason I, or other people really go to see any movie.
- It was very pretty. In the sense that a high fashion show is pretty. It’s not pretty in the way a film like Koyaanisqatsi is pretty.
- The digital IMAX and 3D format. I sat in a good place to see the screen, down at the front the DPI is dreadfully low. It would have ruined the movie for me. 3D adds the right amount of depth to a movie. Its fairly immersive and giving the director another dimension of control this 3D format is a step in the director. Having made the switch to watching 1080p movies at home on a big tv, you get a level of clarity that makes it a much stronger substitute good for seeing it in theaters. 3D is something that has still not yet come to home, and digital IMAX (when viewed properly) gives an experience not yet re-creatable at home.
- Why does he have to make such long ass movies? Jesus Christ my eyes were burning at the end of it. This isn’t an artistic high of James Cameron (Alien) but its a decent movie. Visually stunning.
(1. I could see the plot arc to completion inside the first twenty mnutes, but I didn’t really care. Maybe I just get off on eye candy to such an extent that it didn’t matter that much to me. I also found the level of anthropological detail thrilling, so perhaps that helped. In the plot’s defense, though, although it was predictable, it wasn’t dull.
2. Shocking, deep-intake-of-breath pretty.
3. I didn’t see it in IMAX, so I can’t comment there. However, it’s the first 3D film I’ve seen that really took advantage of the format. Admittedly, I tend to avoid 3D like the plague; I think it’s gimmicky, and I only went to this one because I bought tickets to a 3D showing by accident. That said, goddamn were some of those vistas incredible. And feeling like I was six inches from Neytiri’s arrow near the beginning was actually a bit intimidating.
4. The thing that was most evident to me, coming out of the film, was not the heavy-handed eco-message or the railing against colonialism or the thinly-veiled Iraq war metaphors. It was Cameron’s utter dedication to storytelling, even if that story is not, in and of itself, that good. I’m sure a film like this could benefit from a Quentin Tarantino writing dialogue. But given the effort and time expended to make this thing, it’s obvious that Cameron and his lot wanted to tell a story in the biggest, most powerful way possible. I didn’t feel there was a wasted scene in the film, which makes the length forgivable. I think they suceeded.)
(I just rewatched James and the Giant Peach for the first time in nearly twelve years. It is a brilliant second act sandwiched between a mediocre first and third. The character and production design are as wonderful and whimsical as one usually expects from Selick, but the script is very Disney. It doesn’t have quite the universal charm of Nightmare or the creeping tension of Coraline. Despite its shortcomings, however, it is a solid film, and short enough as not to lose your attention, save for a denoument that drags on and on and doesn’t really seem to go anywhere before being wrapped smartly.)